Union Theatre, London – until 12 August 2017
Taken from Melvyn Bragg’s acclaimed description of England’s Lake District as the 19th century passed into the 20th, The Hired Man is a richly fruited glimpse of a way of life long since passed.
Howard Goodall’s melodies encompass a range of traditional English sources, as the musical’s narrative charts a transition in the nation’s working men (and women), from open-skied agriculture to coal-consuming heavy industry against a backdrop of The Great War.
Brendan Matthew makes a decent job of the libretto’s vast landscape. From the opening Song of the Hired Men, both the time and the place of the show are firmly anchored as we chart the titular John Tallentire’s arc through a challenging life and love.
Playing Tallentire is Ifan Gwilym-Jones who convinces as the muscular man of the land, far happier behind a plough than a coal pick, but ultimately forced to work the pits when the money for labourers dries up above ground. Gwilym-Jones possesses a fine voice, never stronger than in the first half denouement of What A Fool I’ve Been which is spine-tingling in its intensity. Elsewhere though (and along with many other members of the company) his voice is hard to hear – and this from a reviewer sat in the front row! Sasha Regan’s Union Theatre is truly a beautiful off-West End performing space, but (and this has been said before) producers need to mic their casts if many of these well trained voices are even to be heard, let alone appreciated.
Opposite Gwilym-Jones, Rebecca Gilliland plays Emily his wife, bringing a focussed energy to a role that draws on complex emotions. Gilliland has a presence (and vocal power) that commands the stage and she makes fine enthusiastic work of Now For The First Time, along with the far more challenging If I Could. She also cleverly enlivens the complex passions that burn inside one of Goodall’s most intriguing leading ladies, not least in a heartfelt I Wouldn’t be the First.
Notable amongst the company is Jack McNeill who captures the pre-teen and teenage youthfulness of the Tallentire’s son Harry, while at the opposite end of the age spectrum Christopher Lyne turns in all manner of magnificently voiced cameos, playing the story’s older men.
Jonathan Carlton puts in a fabulous shift as Seth, John Tallentire’s brother who becomes a committed Trade Unionist, fighting for miners’ workplace safety. As a history lesson The Union Song does well to remind us of the honourable, proud and decent principles that were once at the core of the Labour movement. There’s yet more history on offer with the show’s reference to the First World War. Goodall’s heartfelt chords (and that sublime key change) in Farewell Song will always make a loving tribute to those who never returned, even more so this year as we mark the 100th anniversary of the horrific Battle of Passchendaele.
Matthew’s direction is at its best in the ensemble numbers where Charlotte Tooth’s imaginative choreography supported by her lithe and graceful dance captain Rebecca Withers offer up some of the finest movement currently to be found on London’s fringe. The Union space is compact and in the show’s large routines that take place in the market square, the tavern and especially The Work Song, Tooth’s work is a visual treat.
At the keyboard Richard Bates works hard directing his two strings players. Goodall’s northern English tunes typically work best with a spot of brass, but notwithstanding this gap the musical accompaniment was polished and perfectly delivered.
The Hired Man makes for a pleasing evening’s entertainment and if some dodgy sound and lighting cues can be ironed out, this show may well yet mature into a truly fine production.